Tom Wolfe launched new genre of journalism
Writer turned to fiction and produced best-sellers
The birth of the literary movement known as “New Journalism” can be traced to one coffee-fueled episode in 1963: Tom Wolfe’s all-nighter. He had been sent to California by Esquire magazine to report on a gathering of custom-car designers and casually cool teenagers.
Photos of lacquer-painted cars were laid out on the pages and the magazine was about to go to press, but Wolfe wasn’t able to complete his first assignment for Esquire. Finally, managing editor Byron Dobell told him to write up his notes as a memo, which the editors would shape into a story.
Wolfe began typing at 8 p.m.
“I wrapped up the memorandum about 6:15 a.m.,” he later wrote, “and by this time it was 49 pages long. I took it over to Esquire as soon as they opened up, about 9:30 a.m.”
The story, “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” was more than a dutiful report on the car convention. Wolfe had discovered an underground culture among the West Coast car designers, hailing them as the vanguard of a new form of modern art, not unlike Picasso.
Seldom had journalism seen such an audacious display of observation, wry humor and go-for-baroque verbal dexterity. Wolfe invented words, wrote in the point of view of his characters and peppered his pages with ellipses, italics and exclamation marks.
Just like that, the legend of Tom Wolfe was born.
“It was like he discovered it in the middle of the night,” Dobell told Vanity Fair in 2015. “Wherever it came from, it seemed to me to tap a strain of pure American humor that wasn’t being tapped.”
Wolfe, who had a transformative effect on journalism and later became a best-selling novelist, died Monday at a Manhattan hospital. He was 88. His niece Hughes Evans confirmed the death, but no other information was immediately available.
In 1963, Wolfe was a little-known reporter at the New York Herald Tribune. Less than two years later, when his first collection, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” was published, he was one of the most famous and influential writers of his generation.
His books became best-sellers, and his explosive, fast-moving prose was seen as the perfect vehicle for the times. He invented or popularized phrases such as “good old boy,” “radical chic,” the “Me Decade” (sometimes altered to “Me Generation”) and “pushing the envelope.”
Perhaps his most memorable coinage was the title of what is often considered his greatest achievement: “The Right Stuff.” Published in 1979, the book was an epic account of the idea of American heroism, viewed through the exploits of military test pilots and astronauts.
Wolfe chronicled the rise of the hippie generation in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1968) and mocked the pretensions of Manhattan liberals in “Radical Chic” (1970) and of the art world in “The Painted Word” (1975). He gleefully violated the city editor’s dictum to trim each sentence to a sleek, understated nugget of news: For Wolfe, no verbal extravagance was too much.
“American journalism has never had a practitioner who combined the attributes of talent, audacity, learning, legwork, and pure observation as well as Tom Wolfe,” author and scholar Ben Yagoda wrote in “The Art of Fact,” a 1997 anthology of narrative nonfiction.
Wolfe was considered the leader of an inkstained avant-garde that included Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, George Plimpton, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson. Their personal, immersive style was imitated, with varying degrees of success, in practically every newspaper feature section in the country.
“The most important literature being written in America today is in nonfiction,” Wolfe asserted in his 1973 anthology, “The New Journalism,” which became the standard of prosaic rubric for his style of writing.
He borrowed certain techniques from fiction, including characterization and dialogue, but knew that journalism had something else going for it — “the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened.”
In almost everything he wrote, Wolfe examined what he called “status details” — the finer points of behavior, trends, fashion and the pursuit of prestige that, in his view, shaped the American social order. Sullen teenagers, Southern good old boys, arty urbanites, elite test pilots, all measured themselves by what their peers thought of them. Perhaps as a marker of his own status, Wolfe pronounced the word “stay-tus.”
For years, Wolfe disparaged the modern novel as a lifeless relic that could be revived only with a muscular framework of reporting and social realism. Deciding to do the job himself, he published “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in Rolling Stone magazine, then, after considerable revision, in book form in 1987.
The novel describes the comeuppance of a wealthy bond trader and self-described “master of the universe” amid the racial and cultural turmoil of New York. “Bonfire” sold millions of copies and was made into a 1990 film with Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis.
In many ways “Bonfire” was his last literary triumph. His books on art and architecture, including “From Bauhaus to Our House” (1981), received biting reviews, including this one from Michael Sorkin in the Nation: “What Tom Wolfe doesn’t know about modern architecture could fill a book. And so indeed it has.”
Wolfe received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2001 and sold his archives to the New York Public Library in 2013 for $2 million.
His later novels — “A Man in Full” (1998), “I Am Charlotte Simmons” (2004) and “Back to Blood” (2012) — received tepid reviews. He feuded with novelists John Updike and John Irving over dismissive comments they made about his fiction. He continued to publish nonfiction books well into his 80s, with critics noting that he often skewered the absurdities of the left but never the buffoonery of the right.
What he didn’t lack was confidence in the power of his prose.
“I regard myself in the first flight of writers, but I don’t dwell on this,” Wolfe said in 1981. “If anything, I think I tend to be a little modest.”
Journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe shows off a trademark white suit in November 1986. Wolfe died Monday at a hospital in Manhattan.